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Angel Bat Dawid’s Requiem for Jazz Isn’t for Grieving

The clarinetist–composer’s new work is a corrective to repeated handwringing about the genre’s future.

Courtesy of International Anthem

In just a few years, Angel Bat Dawid has emerged as one of the most compelling figures in Chicago’s free jazz scene. The clarinetist–composer has performed in ensembles led by Ben LaMar Gay, Damon Locks, and Roscoe Mitchell, and founded a collective called the Participatory Music Coalition. Earlier this year, the Chicago label International Anthem released her acclaimed debut The Oracle.

At this weekend’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival, she will debut Requiem for Jazz, a 12-part multidisciplinary performance that will include an instrumental ensemble, vocalists, visual projections, and dancers.

Dawid, 39, spoke recently from her home in Matteson.

How did you come to write such an epic piece?

I was inspired by this film my father introduced to me years ago called The Cry of Jazz [directed by Chicago-born composer, filmmaker, and writer Edward Bland; the film is thought to take place in a Hyde Park apartment]. The soundtrack is by Sun Ra. The most controversial part of the film is that the main character says jazz is dead — and it was made in 1959, one of the biggest years in jazz, when Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman were released! So, I thought, “If jazz was declared dead, then why wasn’t there a funeral?” And when you write music for a funeral, it’s called a requiem. 

As much as I may be about my jazz consciousness, I am also into Mozart. My father took us to see Amadeus when I was a little girl, and Mozart’s Requiem has always been part of my life. I started composing the first movement [of Requiem for Jazz] in May; I finished everything in June.

Haven’t people been saying jazz is dead every decade or so?

Yes, but the big thing about jazz and blues is that they came out of suffering. One point the film makes is jazz can’t go any further because it is linked to the suffering of black people. It’s our only traditional music. Nas had an album in 2006 called Hip Hop is Dead. Hip-hop has the same structure as jazz: You have a repetitive loop and you improvise on top. That repetitive loop — we’re stuck in the loop of suffering. We have to improvise our lives within this loop.

So culturally, when we say it’s dead, we’re not saying the spirit of jazz is dead. The body of jazz is dead, but the spirit of jazz will always remain alive.

Why did you choose clarinet as your main instrument?

I didn’t want to play clarinet; I always wanted to play piano and violin. But for the orchestra [at Thornton Fractional Township South High School, in Lansing, IL], those parts were filled up. The orchestra conductor said, “Well, we got these clarinets.” I’m 12 years old and still trying to be cool. It didn’t look cool! I went to library and was looking at all the cassettes, and the only clarinet music [I found] was Benny Goodman. He did not seem cool. Then I found Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and I instantly fell in love.

Did being classically trained make it a challenge to then enter the free jazz scene here?

That first jazz session I went to, I was nervous. [Chicago saxophonist] David Boykin said, “Just play anything you want.” It really just about learning how to play yourself: Whatever note is coming out of you, you bless it, and that’s what it is. That’s really the approach. All the training, all the reading — those are just tools. They’re not the music.

Why is the progressive jazz scene such a good home for what you’re doing?

Chicago is a place where you go to work on your stuff. There’s no money, but there’s plenty of opportunity to perform and experiment. Whatever crazy thing you want to do, trust me, there will be somebody to love and support it. That’s the beauty of this city.

I don’t think I will leave Chicago. I’m okay being a poor musician. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m taken care of.

Details:Woodlawn. Logan Center for the Arts, Performance Hall. September 28 at 1 p.m. $5 suggested donation. hydeparkjazzfestival.org.

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